In reading Shakespeare's sonnets, declares Samuel Schoenbaum, "the biographer, in his eagerness for
answers to the unanswerable, runs the risk of confusing the dancer with the dance (Schoenbaum 1975,
134). This curious warning against seeking "answers to the unanswerable" has a distinguished genealogy
in Shakespeare criticism. Many critics
ironically many Shakespeare biographers -- fear that readers
who endorse a biographical paradigm for the Sonnets risk falling into overt apostasy. The biographer Sir
Sidney Lee, an early enthusiast for Shakespeare's "fancy, holds that the bard's "dramatic instinct never
slept, and there is no proof that he is doing more in those sonnets than produce dramatically the illusion of
a personal confession (Lee 1898 159: emphasis added). Schoenbaum, however, is more clever than any
previous critic of the biographical school of Sonnet interpretation. His Romantic premise that poets are
uninterested in proof is supported not by the authority of Sidney Lee, but of William Butler Yeats (1865-
1939), whose famous couplet
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance
How can I know the dancer from the dance
has become a locus classicus in contemporary debates about critical method.
As a matter of faith, it is impossible for Schoenbaum to distinguish the dancer from the dance; those
who make the attempt are frustrated empiricists who have no business pretending to be literary critics.
Curiously, the line from Yeats which Schoenbaum cites has become a locus classicus of contemporary
hermeneutics; in deconstruction according to Paul DeMan, just as in bardography according to
Schoenbaum, it has indeed become impossible to "know" the dancer from dance. In such discourses, the
verb "to know" is construed necessarily to mean "to distinguish" --
and anyone who doesn't accept the
impossibility of distinguishing the dancer from her dance is revealed to be something of an
In his survey of the debate provoked by DeMan's deconstructionist reasoning, David Lehmann
observes that know" can mean "understand" as well as "distinguish. In their reply to DeMan, Cavell and
Hollander each argued that "the literalist of the imagination might ask not how we can distinguish
dancer from the dance, but how, appealing to the dance as our source of knowledge, we can come to know
the dancer (Lehmann 1991 139: italics mine). The DeMan/Schoenbaum reading proceeds from the
assumption that literary criticism, as if defending its honor in a world of science, must rival the analytical
and predictive successes of the hard sciences by deconstructing the synthetic unity of dancer and dance.
Of course such a project is doomed to failure and leads to the false nihilistic gesture that, therefore, sign
and meaning can never coincide and all human communication is mere "sound and fury, signifying
nothing. It is a reading of modern despair which, in imitation of the imperial power of the United States
in Viet-Nam, destroys the city in order to save it.
Yeats, more likely, was writing about the power of eros: the way gestures of the body can inspire a
subject to seek indwelling passion with the dancer. This would place him within the classical tradition of
rhetoric which still prevailed in Shakespeare's day, the purpose of which, according to Agricola, was to
"make one person the sharer of another's mind (Trousdale 33). As Marion Trousdale demonstrates in her
work, Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians, the alienation from this simple and powerful definition of the
communicative arts, which DeMan and Schoenbaum paradoxically share, originates in the 17th
Cartesian alienation of the intellect from the body and reason from intuition. However imperfectly, the
Renaissance rhetorician still believed that words denote things and that gestures denote feelings or ideas,
organic to the communicant, which symbolic action seeks to impart to another. There would be no more
reason for such a reader to convict Shakespeare of not speaking his own mind in the Sonnets than Falstaff
of not doing so in Merry Wives of Windsor.
It almost goes without saying that the elaborate lengths to which orthodox bardographers have gone
to enshroud the Sonnets in a "hermeneutics of suspicion," in which authorial voice is reduced to authorial
persona, result from the intense discomfort generated by the apparent contents of these poems. In two
previous centuries, the bugaboo was homosexuality. In this century -- it is authorship.
And authorship, or rather the alienation of authorship, is certainly a subject on which the Sonnets
dwell in iterated detail. Already chapter eight has touched upon this matter; in chapters 29 and 30 I shall
examine some further dimensions of it. In the present chapter, however, I propose to approach the
question of authorship from a more subtle perspective, by considering not the writer's explicit statements
about authorship, but his perspective on social relations. From what social perspective does
Shakespeare view the universe of mankind? Walt Whitman supposed that only one of the
earls so plentiful in the history plays would seem to be their true author. Can the same be said for the
Sonnets and Shakespearean writings from other genres?
It is often claimed, and the belief is sanctioned by modern laws of copyright which can find no other
basis to defend the legal claims of an author against piracy, that the essence of authorship consists in the
"originality of a work of art. Considering Eliot's dictum that the importance of an author's work consists
precisely in relation to the work of other artists, we perceive that this critical dogma is only partly true.
Actually, the identity -- to avoid the vexing philosophical problems in using or defining a term such as
of an author consists in her creative, often trans-gressive, trans-figuration of received
tradition. Her full meaning will be apparent only in relation to
"the present moment of the past, as T.S.
Eliot phrases it. Nowhere in the history of English literature is this more apparent than in Shake-Speare's
Let us consider Sonnet 94, which
begins "they that have the power to
hurt and will do none .."
The influence of the beatitudes --
-specifically of Matthew 5.3 and
Matthew 5.5 (see figure forty-seven)
-- noted in passing by Booth (1969
will be immediately apparent
to any reader who pauses to consider
the poem from the perspective of
sources. Not merely the structure of
the sentiment "those they shall,
but the specific words "heaven" and
"inherit" are reflected in their genesis in these beatitudes, of which one is marked in the de Vere Bible:
Booth (1977) notices the generic influence of "Christ's sermon on the mount" and sees that "the juxtaposition of 'heaven and 'grace' would
suggest Christian grace (306). In his earlier book, Booth notes "Hallet Smith does not appear to hear an echo of the Sermon on the Mount before
line 9. I hear an echo of the beatitudes in They inherit heaven's graces. In fact, the conjunction of multiple lexical cues -- inherit (Matt. 5.5),
heaven (Matt. 5.3), grace (Pauline epistles) -- with the hortatory voice imitating the expression "blessed be ." renders the influence indubitable.
Figure Forty-six: Sonnet 94 from 1609 Q.
The Sonnets distinctive character emerges
with fresh clarity against the contrasting background of
the beatitudes. As Walter Kaufman has realized, it is not a blessing for the humble multitudes, but for the
select few, the "lords and masters" who are
the "owners of their [own] faces" --
wield "the power to hurt and yet "will do
none. Thus, although the rhetorical template
is the beatitudes, the concept expressed is far
closer to the Aristotelian ideal of the "great
souled" man found in the Nicomachean
Ethic. Variations on the theme recur
throughout the Shakespeare canon. Isabella
in Measure for Measure declares that
It is excellent
To have a giants strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Ironically, the sentiment is less Christian than
pagan. Sonnet 94, comments Kaufmann, "celebrates
Shakespeare's un-Christian ideal, which also was the
ideal of Nietzsche²
.:you who are powerful: let your
kindness be your final self-conquest. Of all evil I deem
you capable: therefore I want the good from you (5).
The Sonnet is thus a fusion of pagan and sacred
sources, making use of the rhetorical resources of the
latter for the overtly elitist project of instructing the
great souled Christian on the nature of his moral
obligations. Can this paradox have been far from the
authors own conscious consideration while crafting the
Sonnet? The emphasis on moral admonition to the man of
power, which a literate Elizabethan would have known
Nietzsche was quite aware that Shakespeare was an early and profound exponent of this anti-democratic doctrine. Perhaps it was this awareness
which led to Nietzsche's own "instinctual" anti-Stratfordianism: "I know no more heart-rending reading than Shakespeare, he writes in Ecce
Homo. "What must man have suffered to have such a need of being a buffoon! .And let me confess it: I feel instinctively sure that Lord Bacon
was the originator, the self-tormenter of this uncanniest kind of literature: what is the pitiable chatter of American flat-and muddle-heads to me?
But the strength required for the vision of the most powerful reality is not only compatible with the most powerful strength for action, for
monstrous action, for crime -- it even presupposes it" (702).
Figure Forty-seven: Matthew 5.1-5 in de Vere
STC 2106, showing marked Matt. 5.3.
Figure Forty-eight: Wisdom 12.17-19 in
de Vere STC 2106.
Figure Forty-nine: Exodus 3.14 in de Vere STC
from the Nicomachean Ethics, is marked in de Vere's Bible in the book of Wisdom (figure forty-eight).
The phrase from the marked verse, "thou ruling the power .iudgest with equity .for thou maist
shewe thy power when thou wilt" has clearly influenced the phraseology of the Sonnet when citizens "that
have the pow'r
to hurt, and will do
none,/That do not do
the thing they most do
show" are chosen for special instruction by
Here again, of course, the convergence
between de Veres biography as one of the
wolfish earls of the Elizabethan state and
the social outlook expressed in the plays and
poems is often nothing short of breathtaking.
What are we to make, for example, of the
extraordinary and indeed disturbing fact that
both "Shakespeare" and Edward de Vere refer to themselves in the first person with the same words God
addressed to Moses in Exodus 3.14 (figure forty-nine) when asked to identify himself?
Figure Fifty: Sonnet 121 from 1609 Q.
De Vere's citation of the phrase occurs in the
handwritten postscript of a 1584 letter written to
Lord Burghley in the hand of an amanuensis.
Apparently written in a white-hot blaze of rage,
de Vere's postscript angrily rebukes Burghley for
employing his own servants to spy on him: "I
pray, my lord, leave yt course, for I mean not to
be yowre ward nor yowre chyld, I serve her
magestie, and I am that I am,
and by allyance
neare to yowre lordship, but fre<e>, and scorne
to be offred that iniurie, to thinke I am so weak of
government as to be ruled by servants, or not able
to governe myself (Fowler 321:italics added).
The Sonnet not only quotes the same striking line
from the Bible, it actually appears to concern the
same incident in the author's life³
Both Sonnet and letter respond to the
circumstance in which a grown man, one of the
self-consciously "great souled," who "scorns to
be offered that injury to think I am so weak of
government as to be ruled by servants, is placed
in the awkward position of enduring the
meddling intrigues of a spying father-in-law.
Like Hamlet under the watchful gaze of Polonius,
he reacts by venting his rage in literary form,
affirming that, like the almighty himself, "I am that I am, and they that level/At my abuses, reckon up
No wonder that for Shakespeare the most feared of the seven deadly sins was pride. He was not only
one of the most gifted artists in the history of the planet, but he was also rich, powerful, and, in some
respects at least, enormously self-centered. The most obvious of Shakespeare's numerous references to
pride as a sin are listed in the Shakespeare Diagnostics List as item #34. Three of these are listed by
It should not be overlooked that these are the only known instances in Elizabethan texts in which a writer applies this audacious --
blasphemous?-- phrase to himself. Contrary to the erroneous conclusion which might be obtained from trusting too implicitly to the account of
Rollins (II:306), when the phrase appears in Brian Melbancke's Philotimus (1583: STC 17800.5), the implicit speaker is Yahweh, not an
Elizabethan courtier: "or thou search a reason of Gods severe punishmente, whose name is Scripture, I am that I am (so incomprehensible is his
Figure Fifty-one: Ecclesiasticus 10.7-14 in de Vere STC
2106. Note the typographical correction to 24.14,
eliminating the error in "[x]is".
previous authorities as references to the marked verse, Ecclesiasticus 10.14 (figure fifty-one). As this
number shows, pride is a recurrent theme in the marked verses of the de Vere Bible. Although the other
verse on this theme listed by Shaheen and Milward, Proverbs 16.18, is not marked in the de Vere Bible,
pride and its associated error in Shakespeare, lofty ambition, are also condemned in the marked verse
De Vere's poem "My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is (see appendix N) adumbrates Shakespeare's oft-
iterated image of the social climber who comes tumbling down from the lofty heights of the Court: "I see
how plenty suffers oft, how hasty climbers soon do fall/I see that those that are aloft, mishap doth threaten
most of all. The thought is closely paralleled in several Shakespearean passages, among them: " .the
art o' the court,/As hard to leave as keep, whose top to clime/Is certain falling (Cymbeline 3.3.46-48).
Shakespeare habitually associates the sin of pride
with this image of falling. The closest Biblical parallel
to several such passages, which states that "Pride goeth
before destruction, and an high minde before the fall"
(Proverbs 16.18), is not marked in the de Vere Bible.
Four of Shakespeare's references to the sin of pride, two of them noted by previous students of the
question, seem to refer directly to this verse: "Would he not fall down, since pride/Must have his fall?
(Richard II 5.5.88)
; "Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself/And falls on th' other-- (Macbeth 1.7.27-
; "Richard Falls in the height of all his pride"; "My pride fell with my fortunes (As You Like It
1.2.252). These passages are closely linked by idea not only to the reference to "hasty climbers" who
"soon do fall" in the de Vere poem above, but also to the marked verse Ecclesiasticus 20.17(figure fifty-
two), which notes that "the fall of the wicked come[s] hastely."
A fourth reference to the sin of pride, according to Richmond Noble, refers directly to the marked
verse Ecclus. 10.14:
Speed. Item, she is proud.
Launce: Out with that too: it was Eve's legacy
And cannot be ta'en from her.
(Two Gentlemen 3.1.337-39)
The point of Launce's remark lies in Ecclus x.14: "For pride is the original of all sinne. Since Eve was
the original sinner, and since it was her pride, as according to Ecclus. X.14, that caused her to sin,
therefore pride is part and parcel of female human nature."
"Flattery" is not listed as an item in the Shakespeare Diagnostics, but it might have been.
Shakespeare uses the verb "to flatter" and its cognates over one hundred and thirty times in the canon.
Shaheen (1989) 30.
Milward (1987) 125.
Figure Fifty-two: Ecclesiasticus 20.17 in de Vere
His most memorable evil characters, such as Iago, are adept at appealing to the weakness of "great-
souled" heroes like Othello by employing the techniques of flattery. Affirms Caroline Spurgeon:
Shakespeare .turns almost sick when he watches flatterers and syncophants bowing and cringing to the
rich and powerful purely in order to get something out of them for themselves. It is as certain as anything
can be, short of direct proof, that he had been hurt, directly or indirectly, in this particular way. No one
who reads his words carefully can doubt that he had either watched someone, whose friendship he prized,
being deceived by fawning flatterers, or that he himself had suffered from a false friend or friends.
It is easy to see that a man of Oxford's wealth, power and talents would have been constantly
subjected to the evils of flattery. As a reader of the Bible he was struck by, and underlined, the Argument
to II Samuel describing the "horrible and dangerous insurrections, uprores, and treasons [which] were
wroght against [David], partly by false conselors, fained friends & flatterers
& partely by some of his
owne children and people (emphasis added). A May 13, 1587 letter by Lord Burghley
Walsingham complains that the Earl's "lewd friends .still rule him by flatteries. Both Oxford's own
correspondence and the extant legal records of his estate reveal that, over and again, he found himself in
the position of Othello, having been, he felt, deceived by the whispering flattery of trusted stewards who
turned out to be more interested in their own gain than the welfare of their master or his estate.